John Norris. A 17th Century Worthy.
By Richard Aldington
The Rev. John Norris is remembered (by those who remember him at all) as a philosopher, the earliest critic of Locke and a disciple of Malebranche. But he was a poet as well as a philosopher and divine, and by no means a bad poet.
His talent was slender, his flights of song short and not numerous, but he had his own small yet rightful share in that lyrical capacity, that ability to think subtly, imaginatively, and harmoniously in verse, which were the distinguishing traits of that great school of poets misnamed the "metaphysical." the poetry of of Norris is not merely a piece of quaint archaeology; it is not to be admired in the spirit of a collector of pewter pots and early tape measures; it possesses more serious claims to be considered enjoyable.
John Norris, "son of a father of both his names," as Anthony à Wood quaintly puts it, was born at Collingbourne-Kingston, in Wiltshire, in 1657. He went to Winchester and Exeter College and obtained a fellowship at All Souls. We may surmise that, like most of the mystic poets, he was a strong Tory; he certainly seems to have been on the loyal side in 1683 when he published "A Murnival of Knaves, or Whiggism plainly display'd and burlesqu'd out of Countenance." It is a matter for regret that this powerful word "murnival" failed to win the approval of Dr. Johnson.
His Verse and Prose.
Norris's poems appeared in a book of mingled verse and prose called "A collection of Miscellanies," published first at Oxford and then a London. The book must have been fairly successful since the catalogue of an eighteenth-century publisher mentions an eighth edition. Its popularity may have been due to the prose, since it contains several admirable reflective or philosophic essays of a mystical kind and a most touching little fragment upon the death of his niece at the age of thirteen. Whatever Wood may say of his pertness and boldness, only a good and affectionate man could have felt as this letter shows him to have felt:My pretty little dear Neece and scholar, she whom I loved, admired and delighted in; she for whose sake I once thought life, as now I think death, a blessing, she (how shall I bring out that dismal word)is dead.After many charming things he finds to say of the little girl as he dwells lovingly on her memory, he adds: "And besides all this, there were in her (as in Poetry) many errantes abditaeque veneres, wandering and hidden graces that want a name, and unexpressible prettinesses, which yet were strangely moving and of a charming influence." One of the longest, though not most happy, of Norris's poems is on the same subject; like all the "metaphysical" poets, he turns the commonplaces of affliction with wonderful grace and an appearance of originality.
She is dead and has left a strange emptiness in my soul (so large was the room she took up there) which nothing of the world's good can ever fill. I must needs own that I never was so deeply affected with any trouble in my life, nor did I ever think that it could be in the power of any temporal loss so much to discompose and unspirit my soul.
In poetry as in everything else Norris was a little old-fashioned. His master in secular verse was Mr. Cowley and in religious verse Mr. Crashaw. The godless frivolities and blasphemies introduced by my Lord Rochester from the stews and taverns of France (where a courtesan named Ninon was frequented by men and even ladies of quality) were the specific object of attack by this tender and serious neo-Platonist. And the works on John Milton, who was very nearly if not quite a regicide, were scarcely read and certainly not emulated by a loyal divine. Norris lived before Mr. Addison and taken in hand the reformation of the British Muse, which work so happily begun was continued by the great lexicographer to the almost complete extinction of poetry. Certainly, since the effects of the Revolution were felt together with Mr. Addision's criticisms, there has been no general and widespread poetic ability in England. Before Addision even the most minor poets were sometimes inspired. He did not believe (like Johnson) that religious poetry was impossible. He just wrote it:How fading are the joys we dote upon,He abounds in the conceits of the metaphysical school. Hey says of the eclipse at the Crucifixion:
Like Apparitions seen and gone;
But those which soonest take their flight,
Are the most exquisite and strong.
Like Angels' visits, short and bright;
Mortality's too weak to bear them long.... the Sympathizing Sun his light withdrew,Yet he is, perhaps most attractive in the mood of humble contentment, for which no doubt he found a model in Cowley's "Solitude." It is pleasant to hope he was happy among his books and dreams of heaven in his country rectory:
And wonder'd how the stars their dying Lord could view.Let me in some sweet shade serenely lye,
Happy in leisure and obscurity;
Whilst others place their joys
In popularity and noise.
Let my soft moments glide obscurely on
Like subterraneous streams, unheard, unknown.
Thus when my days are all in silence past,
A good plain country-man I'll dye at last;
Death cannot chuse but be
To him a mighty misery,
Who to the world was popularly known,
And dies a stranger to himself alone.